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Background on Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone is located in Western Africa and Borders with Liberia (South West and South East) and Guinea (North-West and North East).
  • Total area: 71,740 sq km, slightly smaller that South Carolina
  • Capital: Freetown Other cities: Bo (269,000), Kenema (337,000), and Makeni (316,000) Coast; North Atlantic Ocean.
  • Climate: tropical; hot, humid; summer rainy season (May to December); winter dry season (December to April)
  • Landscape: coastal belt of mangrove swamps, wooded hill country, upland plateau, mountains in east
  • Natural Resources: diamonds, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore, gold, chromite Environmental hazards: rapid population growth pressuring the environment; overharvesting of timber, expansion of cattle grazing, and slash-and-burn agriculture have resulted in deforestation and soil exhaustion; civil war depleting natural resources; overfishing
  • Population: 5,732,681 (July 2003 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 42.84 years
  • Ethnic Groups: 20 native African tribes 90% (Temne 30% in the North, Mende 30%, in the South, other 30%), Creole (Krio) 10% (descendants of freed Jamaican slaves who were settled in the Freetown area in the late-18th century), refugees from Liberia's recent civil war, small numbers of Europeans, Lebanese, Pakistanis, and Indians.
  • Languages: English, Krio (spoken by the Creoles, derived from English), Tenme, Mende.
  • Religions: Muslim 60%, indigenous beliefs 30%, Christian 10% Literacy: 31%
Temne peoples were living along the coast of Sierra Leone when the first Portuguese sailors arrived in the area around 1460. The Portuguese named the region Sierra Lyoa (lion mountain). European traders traded cloth, ivory, timber, and slaves. In the early sixteenth century Mende people began migrating from the present-day Liberia to Sierra Leone. During the eighteenth century the area became one of Britain’s first West African colonies.

In 1772, slavery was abolished in England. The Sierra Leone Company was formed by the british Abolitionists to aid the poor freed slaves to return to Africa. The first settlers arrived in Africa in 1787. Freed slaves from America were also repatriated to the region. Disease as well as hostility of the indigenous peoples almost wiped out the first group of freed slaves who returned to the region. The repatriated slaves were called “Creoles”. They arrived by the thousands, 70,000 from England alone, to Freetown, which was founded in 1792 by former slaves of Nova Scotia. Originally from many areas of Africa, after years of separation from their countries, they re-built new lives for themselves in the West African region.

During the first decades of settlement in Sierra Leone, the area occupied by repatriated free slaves was controlled by the Sierra Leone Company which maintained contacts with the local tribes while the settlers supported themselves with farming. Due to financial hardships of the company, the British government took over the control of the territory in 1808 transforming Freetown in the residence of the British governor who ruled the colony. The British used Freetown as base for antislavery patrols.

In 1821, Gold Coast (now Ghana), Gambia and Sierra Leone were merged into the British African West Territories governed by the Sierra Leone governor. Freetown became the educational center of West Africa with its western style university Fourah Bay College. In 1896 the Colony and protectorate of Sierra Leone was established to limit French colonial ambitions in the region.

Although the indigenous peoples attempted to overthrow British and Creole rule, they were unsuccessful. During the period of British occupation the region did not undergo an economic development although the production of palm products and peanuts was promoted. Mining of diamonds and iron was intensified only after World War II.

The early decades of the twentieth century was quite peaceful, and the country gained independence without the use of violence. During World War II a naval base was maintained in Freetown by the British. In 1951 a constitution was created providing guidelines for decolonization.

Sir Milton Margai became the Prime Minister after the conclusion of London talks in which political power was handed over to the local government. Independence was achieved in April 1961. Sierra Leone chose to maintain its membership in the British Commonwealth. Sir Margai died in 1964. His half-brother Sir Albert Margai became then the prime Minster. Margai’s Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) was supplanted after his death with the All Peoples Congress (APC) in the elections of 1967. Governor general (representing British Monarchy) immediately declared Dr. Siaka Stevens, leader of the APC and mayor of Freetown, the new Prime Minister.

As soon as Stevens was declared Prime Minister, in open dissent with the governor general, Brigadier David Lansana, the Commander of the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces (RSLMF) placed Stevens and Magrai under house arrests, arguing that it was necessary to wait until tribal representatives for the house were chosen before proclaiming a Prime Minster. A group of senior officers, called the National Reformation Council (NRC), arrested Lansana and seized the control of the government on March 23, 1961, suspending the constitution.

In 1968 the NRC was removed from power by the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary Movement. Soon the constitution was restored and Dr. Saika Stevens (APC) at last took the office of Prime Minister. The 1970s were years of great instability: a state of emergency was called (1970), new Constitution was passed (1971), military coup plots against the government were exposed (1974), and student demonstrations broke out (1977).

In April 1971, a new republican Constitution was approved and Dr. Saika Stevens was declared President winning a second term in 1977. In 1978 Stevens won the approval of the government to introduce a one-party political system; the Constitution was changed to include the new one-party government system. The first elections under the one-party system were held in June 1982. The elections were controversial; the government canceled electoral results in 13 constituencies because of alleged irregularities. The new government combined Mendes and Temnes.

Dr. Siaka Stevens, retired in 1985 after governing the country for 18 years. After choosing Joseph Saidu Momoh as candidate to replace Stevens, the APC called for a one-party referendum in October 1985. Once president, Momoh called, in 1990, for a review the one-party government established by the 1978 constitution. His intentions were those of broadening the base of political participation and of introducing protection of human rights and the true rule of law.

The committee that reviewed the Constitution recommended re-establishing the multi-party system; following such recommendation a new constitution was approved in 1991, re-establishing the multi-party system. Nevertheless, Momoh did not seem sincere in his desire to promote the protection of human rights, especially because the abuses of his government grew in intensity and gravity. In April 1992 Momoh fled to Guinea when a coup was organized against him by exponents of the military. In the meantime the rebel war in some areas of the country intensified.

Compiled from: www.africast.com; www.infoplease.com/ce6/world/A0861084.html

Sierra Leone is an extremely poor African nation with tremendous inequality in income distribution. It does have substantial mineral, agricultural, and fishery resources. However, the economic and social infrastructure is not well developed, and serious social disorders continue to hamper economic development, following an 11-year long civil war. About two-thirds of the working-age population engages in subsistence agriculture. During the conflict many fertile areas could not be cultivated because of the fighting.

Manufacturing consists mainly of the processing of raw materials and of light manufacturing for the domestic market. Plans continue to reopen bauxite and rutile mines shut down during the conflict. The major source of hard currency derives from the mining of diamonds. Yet an estimated 30% of the GDP is provided by foreign aid.

The fate of the economy depends upon the maintenance of domestic peace and the continued receipt of substantial aid from abroad, which is essential to offset the severe trade imbalance and to supplement government revenues.

Occupations: 75% agriculture, 17% Industry, 1% Services.

Sierra Leone gained independence in April 1961. The entire population above the age of 18 has the right to vote. The country has a Constitutional democracy and is divided in three provinces, Eastern, Northern, Southern and the Western area. The current Constitution was passed in 1991. Laws are based on English system; customary tribal laws are incorporated. The jurisdiction of the ICJ has not been yet recognized.

The executive branch is constituted by the president, who is both chief of state and head of government, and a cabinet. The president is elected directly for five-years terms. Last presidential election was held in May 2002 and the next one will be held in May 2007. A president can be elected for no more than two terms. The current President is Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. The cabinet is composed of Ministers of State who are selected by the president and then approved by the parliament. The cabinet responds to the president; it is also in charge of organizing presidential elections every five years. In 2000 the government of Sierra Leone passed the Anti-Corruption Act to combat corruption affecting the functioning of the various branches of the government.

Local Government: Chiefdoms
The three provinces of Sierra Leone, Northern, Southern and Eastern, are divided in 11 administrative districts. The Northern province has five districts, while the Southern and Eastern provinces have three districts each. Every district is composed of several chiefdoms, each headed by paramount chiefs residing in the chiefdoms’ headquarters. Each chiefdom, on the other hand, is divided in sections, composed of towns and villages. Each section is headed by a section chief, or sub-chief, who is the oldest direct male descendent of the original founder of the political structures in the territory in question. The paramount chief has authority over the sections that compose his chiefdom.

The role of chiefs and chiefdoms has evolved over the centuries. Traditionally, a chief was assisted a Chiefdom Council; his responsibilities consisted of providing a safe environment in the chiefdom, solving disputes, maintenance of law and order in each district as well as patronage of secret societies in the chiefdom. The inhabitants of the chiefdom reciprocated for the chief’s services and role in the society by performing services (communal labor in his land, building and maintenance of his compound) and providing gifts (i.e. for dispute resolution). During the period of colonial occupation the British consolidated the power of certain indigenous rulers and ruling houses thus guaranteeing their rights to paramount chieftaincy even if according to local traditions and descent lines such families would not have had such right.

Since the passing of the Local Courts Act (1963), the chiefs no longer preside over court cases. The local courts exercise no such function with exception for the land and boundary disputes. The paramount chief thus heads the Chiefdom Court but the local court proceedings are presided by a Court Chairman appointed by the Chiefdom Councillors.

Traditionally, a Paramount Chief was chosen among the members of the same ruling house as the one of the deceased Paramount Chief and appointed only after the approval of the people in the chiefdom. Today, elections are held to determine who should be the Paramount Chief. In every district one Paramount Chief is also chosen as the representative of the district in the national parliament. In addition to the paramount Chiefs, an elected council and mayor are present in Freetown, Kenema, Bo, and Makeni. Still today, the Paramount Chief presides over the Chiefdom Council made up by Chiefdom Councillors (one is appointed for every 20 tax payers).

An interim Council of Paramount Chiefs was established by president Kabbah, with the intention of turning such body into a permanent institution to promote collaboration between the chiefs, and between the chiefs and the government. The primary advisory function of a National Council of Paramount Chiefs would call the council to express itself on issues concerning land tenure in the provinces, criteria of succession and recognition of ruling houses, methods for strengthening the socio-economic development of chiefdoms, review of customary law to build national standards etc.

The legislative branch is constituted by a unicameral parliament of 124 members who serve five-years mandates. 112 representatives are elected by popular vote while the remaining 12 seats are filled by paramount chiefs, elected in separate elections. Sixty-three chiefdoms participated in the elections of May 2002. The main parties are Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) and All Peoples Congress (APC). Currently, parliment is comprised of 83 members of the Sierra Leonean Peoples Party, 27 members of the All Peoples Congress, and 2 members of the Peoples Liberation Party. 

The judicial branch is constituted by a Supreme Court, Appeals Court, and High Court. Although independent from the other branches of government, the action of the judicial branch has suffered from the practice of corruption, lack of resources and qualified personnel. The judges for the Supreme Court, Appeals Court and the High Court are appointed by the presidents on the advice of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission followed by approval of the Parliament. The appeals form local courts and judges are passed along to the aforementioned higher courts. The Constitution of 1991 introduced the figure of ombudsman that investigates complaints related to alleged abuse of power of the public officials.

Compiled from: CIA World Factbook on Sierra Leone, 2004; 1999 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Sierra Leone, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, 1999; NationMaster.com;  Speeches Delivered by His Excellency The President at Kenema, Bo, Makeni and Port Loko to the Newly Elected Paramount Chiefs, 26 to 30 January 2003, available at The Republic of Sierra Leone State House Online.  

Legal System
Despite the Constitutional “supremacy” of common law in Sierra Leone, customary law procedures are used in regulating criminal behavior throughout the rural areas. In many cases, the traditional and informal methods of customary law fail to meet the standards of Sierra Leone’s Constitution and the international human rights treaties to which the nation is committed. These customary systems, however, continue to regulate criminal behavior and dispute resolution almost everywhere outside the main cities of Freetown, Bo, Kenema, Port Loko and Makeni. Customary laws allow for discrimination against women and bias on the basis of social status in particular.

Few Sierra Leoneans even receive formal representation. Few can afford lawyers and the country’s only legal service organization LAWCLA, serves only Freetown and Makeni. Many criminal defendants go entirely unrepresented. Civil litigants know little about their rights, putting those who cannot afford representation at a disadvantage.

The system of local courts presided over by traditional leaders or their officials and applying customary law is the only form of legal system accessible to an estimated seventy percent of the population. Customary law applied by the local courts is often discriminatory and the local courts often abuse their powers by illegally detaining persons and charging excessively high fines for minor offenses.

Years of neglect and corruption have produced a broken system lacking both government attention and financial resources. Only the few individuals with money have access to such a system. Judges and lawyers have too many cases with too little time and resources to handle them efficiently. Many of the problems that plagued the judiciary before the war persist. Costs and lengthy delays deter many from using the courts, and they turn instead to customary laws and local bodies to address their problem.

Despite a persistent shortage of judges and magistrates, judicial authority is steadily being reinstated in the districts. Following an absence of nearly a decade, a High Court now sits regularly in the southern and eastern provinces of the country. Four itinerant magistrates, each covering at least three districts and assisted by newly sworn-in Justices of the Peace, have been assigned. While these measures have significantly alleviated the acute backlog in the number of cases pending before the courts, prolonged pre-trial detention remains a major cause of concern.

Compiled from: Criminal Justice: Justice Initiative Web SiteHuman Rights Watch Overview Sierra Leone, January 2004; ICG Africa Report September 2003;  Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: Situation of human rights in Sierra Leone, 11.39.